Fitness: Feel the Change

A workout routine is often regimented based on body weight and image consciousness. But the trick is to incorporate a deeper approach: there’s nothing like feeling the difference

By Arnab Ghosh

Published: Sat 15 Jan 2022, 9:25 PM

What comes to mind when you think of the word “fitness”? For the vast majority, the first impression “fitness” evokes are either of a lean, chiselled physique with perfect muscle definition and six-pack abs, or a slender and toned bikini body. A few years ago, social question-and-answer portal Quora asked exactly that: “What comes to mind when you hear the word fitness?” An overwhelming number of answers were related to looking good and physical achievements. Some had a broader view, taking the “fitness means different things to different people” direction. But it was still mostly about physical accomplishments. Fitness has been an integral part of my life for so long that I have never really paid specific attention to it. It’s the only way I have learned to live: stay active by doing something or the other every day.

Back in my student days, I was training for various sports, competing at inter-school and inter-collegiate levels. As a martial artist, I trained for local and international tournaments. While there were physical goals throughout, the focus was on performance for a specific sport or event rather than aesthetics. Running faster, jumping higher, throwing farther: these were the goals we had as young sports people. Nobody was concerned with getting a six-pack. Some of us had one. Some of us didn’t. And it was fine both ways. We didn’t starve ourselves to look a certain way, because we knew athletic performance would be affected (mostly negatively).

I have come to realise, over the years, that staying active and engaging in physical activity — be it a workout, a swim, a martial arts session, or even just going for a walk in the park — makes me feel refreshed and reinvigorated. Nothing does it quite like sweating it out in the dojo. That’s my go-to workout.

Working out also helps me in other areas of life. Problem-solving, for instance. When I get stuck on a problem, I walk away from it for a while, and only get back to it after my workout or training session. And then, magic happens. Everything seems clearer. Creative juices flow (more freely). The problem doesn’t appear as big as I had initially perceived it to be. Solutions appear.

Fitness For All — Virtually

In recent years, the fitness trend has really caught on. All over the world, people are realising the benefits of staying fit and staying active. Dubai has stayed abreast of the trend, and continues to lead by example. Most new residential projects have at least a gym and a swimming pool for residents to use. There are fitness studios, gyms, dance schools and martial arts dojos all over the city. The government has invested heavily into building dedicated cycling and jogging tracks. His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, is an excellent ambassador for fitness himself. His initiative, the Dubai Fitness Challenge, encourages every resident to engage in physical activity during the entire month of November. What matters is that they do something for at least 30 minutes every single day, for 30 days.

One of the most positive things to have happened over an otherwise devastating global pandemic is that home workouts became more popular — albeit not by choice. Many fitness professionals took to posting workout videos and home workout tips. Some even offered live online sessions. Now, there’s no excuse for not doing something for fitness on a regular basis.

The Obvious Benefits

We all know that working out will help with burning calories for weight loss, toning and building muscles, and preventing lifestyle diseases like diabetes and obesity. Some of us know that physical activity helps us sleep better. What (comparatively) less people are aware of is that physical activity is excellent for mental health as well. In fact, as I had mentioned at the outset, for the vast majority, the focus is primarily on how one looks instead of how one feels. According to the National Institutes of Health in the US, physical exercise and getting the body to do what it was designed to do — i.e., move — has a slew of other health benefits that go beyond just the physical element. Even simple exercises such as walking, jogging, cycling and swimming have been proven to reduce anxiety and depression.

Physical activity generates two critical elements that impact the level of pleasure and joy we feel. One is a hormone called serotonin, which stabilises our mood and impacts our feeling of happiness and wellbeing. The other is a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger in the brain that relays messages between nerve cells) called dopamine, which determines how we feel pleasure: i.e., feelings of rewards and motivation. Regular exercise of any sort can relieve stress, reduce anxiety and depression, improve self-esteem, and help become less introverted and have better social engagement. This comes not from looking good, but more from feeling good. When we aim for the feel-good factor and make a commitment to simply get moving, the look-good element happens by default.

The drawback of setting solely physical goals is that people draw inspiration from others to embark upon a journey of body transformation. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Most of us benefit from having some sort of a benchmark and a role model to look up to. Where things do start going wrong, however, is when we start walking in someone else’s shoes without realising that their shoes don’t fit us! Many of us don’t often understand human physiology as well as we think we do.

The Motivating Factor

Arpan Ghosh is a communications manager at a Dubai-based real estate company, and a self-trained fitness enthusiast. Though fitness was never a big part of his life growing up, he was an active child. It was only during his college days in the US that he embarked upon the journey of physical fitness. It was hard to miss the freshman pounds. But, also, a part of his curriculum was to enroll in at least two sports courses. He chose tennis and martial Arts. After moving back home to Dubai, it was difficult for him to pursue either. But he found a portal of workout programmes called Darebee, which has an extensive variety of routines ranging from cardio to strength training and flexibility, that required no fancy equipment, and could be done at home.

Though he started working out to lose some weight, Arpan realised quite quickly that he is getting much more than physical fitness from his programme. His focus has shifted from how he looks to how he feels, and the satisfaction he derives from completing any given programme or challenge that he participates in. “I just feel a sense of satisfaction when I finish a workout. It motivates me, because I know I overcame whatever obstacle came my way and still managed to complete it.”

Hear It From The Experts

Synthia Jacob is a Dubai-based fitness and wellbeing professional, sports nutrition coach and certified personal trainer. Her own journey began with physical goals, but transformed into a journey of wellbeing and self-discovery. Sport was her biggest fear growing up. It was the one thing that tarnished her otherwise perfect academic record. She was always conscious of how she looked, and how she performed (not very well back then, she admits). But she made the decision to change all that, and in January 2015, as soon as a new gym opened for business, she enrolled. What she hadn’t known back then is that her new adventure would become her path in life. At first, she was very uncomfortable wearing workout clothes. Not that she was obese; or skinny, for that matter. She was an average young woman. But she was very unhappy with her body. Her goal was the slender figure of a supermodel.

During the course of her transformation — from being a sport-phobic to becoming a fitness guru — Synthia learned to love her body. Today, she is at a point where she never misses her workouts, and eats smart rather than “dieting”.

She also discovered a gap in the personal training industry — from her own experience. A personal trainer she worked with just did not get her the results she wanted. She realised it was because that particular trainer — like many other trainers around the world — knew how to work out, but did not have the knowledge required to understand and adapt workouts to other body types. That is what prompted her to study further and become one herself.

From offering advice and suggestions to friends and fellow gym-goers, she progressed to guiding clients towards achieving their fitness and well-being goals. Synthia takes the “personal” element of personal training seriously: rather than taking on more and more clients, she prefers to work closely with a few at a time, and creates bespoke programmes.

Ram Sadhvani is an electromechanical consultant by profession. He is also an influencer at 6th Street, and a part of the ASICS FrontRunner’s UAE team (a group of fitness enthusiasts who are ‘Ambassadors of Movement’).

Ram firmly believes that a happier, relaxed mind is a far more important objective than a specific physique. In keeping with the team’s credo, he spreads the word about “Sound Body, Sound Mind” being the healthiest and most sustainable approach to fitness. Exercise, to him, is a form of moving meditation. Ram’s own fitness regimen comprises a diverse range of activities. With outdoor running being at the helm — supplemented by weight training and cross-training for conditioning — he also enjoys yoga as well as pool and open water swimming, and has recently taken up rollerblading.

Impact Of Social Media

Khulood Ibrahim is a social media marketing professional with a passion for running. It’s no surprise that she, like Ram, she’s a part of ASICS FrontRunner. Her regimen comprises three days of running, three days of strength training, and a day of rest. For Khulood, fitness is about both looking and feeling good. “When you look good, you feel good, and vice versa,” she says.

She got into fitness to lose weight. Somewhere along the way, she began to realise how good physical activity made her feel. “It doesn’t bother me anymore if the scale goes up a few pounds. I enjoy treats during holidays and when I travel without any guilt,” she admits. “I know once I am back on track the pounds will go away. What matters to me is consistency.”

She is realistic rather than euphemistic about the impact of social media on fitness enthusiasts. It has its pros and cons, Khulood points out. On one hand, there are those who portray their perfect lives and perfect bodies on social media. That may make people who have solely physical goals but are still stuck in less-than-perfect bodies feel bad about themselves. On the other hand, social media is also a channel for those who serve to remind us commoners that the most important element of exercise is not the pursuit of perfection, but the journey of continuously creating a better version of ourselves — because the only person we should be competing against is the self.

Ram concurs: that social media can be a double-edged sword. “It may sometimes have a negative impact, but I also think it is a huge force for good,” he says. “As a runner, I see first-hand how it connects our community, with runners following and supporting each other, and newbies seeing where to go for community runs such as Dubai Creek Striders, where I’m a running group leader.”

Synthia is an avid Instagrammer, and has garnered over 50,000 followers in under a year. The content she posts is less about boasting a six-pack and how she looks, and more about her key message of working out to feel good and embrace a lifestyle of health and wellness.

Developing A Fitness Routine

As a rule of thumb, Ram advises 80 per cent of one’s activity to be at a moderate, easy-going pace, and 20 per cent at high intensity. This formula will go a long way in making the effort (towards fitness) sustainable. His advice to everyone who wants to live a healthier and more fulfilling life is to vary the type and intensity of activities. Rather than thinking of fitness as a regimen, he recommends taking the approach of something one enjoys. While running, for example, instead of thinking of the run or the distance to cover, one should just enjoy the run, move to the music, relax into it and soak in the sights.

Khulood’s top tip is to “find a fitness routine that is sustainable for a long period of time and do what you love”. She cites her own example of varying her workout seasonally. In summer, she enjoys swimming. Right now, she is into rollerblading, so she incorporates that into her weekly activity.

Khulood makes a very important point when she points out that just because a specific routine worked for one person doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for everyone. Synthia advises everyone — her clients and everyone she has occasion to discuss fitness with — to set goals but enjoy the process of achieving them rather than staying fixated on them. Learning should be the key takeaway, not just the result. Eating what best suits the individual and exercising according to one’s body type will not only help with achieving optimal results, but will also develop an overall sense of wellbeing and keep one motivated to continue living that way of life.

My own belief (based on my study of physical education) is that the human body was designed to move; and that’s what we should be doing — keeping it active in whatever way we can.

Arnab is a Dubai-based freelance writer, a corporate strategist and a martial artist with internationally recognised black belt rankings in Karate, Kobudo and Aikido

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